The RSS was born out of opposition to the campaign to establish caste and gender equality arising out of the freedom movement. At that time India was emerging as a nation and in the process the feudal hierarchy was weakening and there was talk of giving equal rights to all irrespective of caste, class and gender. In response, Muslim and Hindu nationalists emerged, who wanted to preserve social hierarchy in the name of religion.
The Hindu nationalist RSS created a fictional narrative of India’s golden past. He describes the glorious period when the social system was governed by the laws of Manusmriti. He claims that Hindu values are great. They give equal status to all castes and treat women with respect. The attacks on the country by Muslim invaders and robbers led to the collapse of those glorious values. Women had a high status in the Hindu community, but due to the actions of Muslim attackers, it became a compulsion of Hindus to impose many restrictions on women and this led to the birth of sati practice. Hindu nationalists coined this myth to explain the reason behind the restrictions on Hindu women.
This claim was made by RSS joint general secretary Krishna Gopal while addressing a program on women empowerment organized under the aegis of Nari Shakti Sangam recently. Explaining how women in India became empowered to disabilities, he said, “Till the 12th century, women were largely free, but in the medieval period (medieval India), the situation changed. It was a very difficult time… The whole country was struggling with slavery… Women were in danger. Millions of women were kidnapped and sold to other countries. (Ahmad Shah) Abdali, (Muhammad) Ghauri and (Mahmud) Ghazni took the women from here and sold them… It was a period of humiliation for our country. So, to protect our women, our society has imposed many restrictions on them.
In the kingdom of the enemy king, looting and enslaving the losers was not limited to the Muslim invaders. Hindus and other kings also looted the conquered territories, kidnapped women and enslaved men. The Chola kings enslaved a large number of people from Sri Lanka. Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s army, after conquering kalyan state, took away wealth from there, as well as the daughter-in-law of the Muslim ruler there. The restrictions that Krishna Gopal is talking about where applicable to Hindu women even before Muslim kings stepped into South Asia. The practice of Sati, under which Hindu widows were burnt alive on the pyre of their husbands, also existed in India.
Even in ancient India, women were deprived of property and education rights. There is a description of sati practice in ancient texts. According to the Mahabharata, Pandu’s wife Madri was Sati. Similarly, the four wives of Lord Krishna’s father Vasudeva also sat on their husband’s pyre. The truth is that patriarchy and pride in the superiority of one’s descendants were at the root of the oppression of women and the practice of sati. According to Romila Thapar, “subjugation of women in patriarchal society”, “protecting the honour of the clan” and “controlling the sexuality of women” were the major factors behind the rise of sati practice,
According to Vidya Dehejia, the practice of Sati originated in the Kshatriya elite and in most cases was confined to the warrior class of Hindus.
In the post-Gupta period, the decline in trade and business led to a decline in the status of women. They were barred from getting education, child marriages began to take place and widow remarriage was banned. Due to this, a horrific practice like Sati got a boost. In their book Women: Her History, Chandrababu and Thilgavathi summarize this situation: “Girls had little or no freedom. Girls were married off at a very young age. They did not have access to education… And adherence to sati practice was considered reverential.”
Now how does the RSS deal with this situation? RSS is only a men’s organisation. It has formed an organisation called Rashtra Sevika Samiti, but it is under the RSS. From the name of this organization, it is clear that it reflects Hindu nationalist thinking on this issue. The word ‘Swayam’ is missing from the name of this organization.
What the Rashtra Sevika Samiti is teaching its women followers is evident from the statements of many women leaders of the Sangh Parivar. The leadership of the committee is in favor of keeping women subservient. BJP national vice-president Vijayaraje Scindia had led a protest in front of Parliament in support of the Sati practice after the Roopkunwar Sati kand. At that time, Parliament was considering enacting a new law to ban the practice of Sati. According to Vijayaraje, Sati is a glorious tradition and Hindu women have the right to be Sati. Another top leader of the committee, Mridula Sinha, who later became the Governor of Goa, in an interview to Sevi magazine in April 1994, advised Hindu women to accept being beaten up by their husbands. He defended the practice of dowry and urged women not to work outside the house unless absolutely necessary.
Former RSS pracharak Pramod Muttalik’s Ram Sene had beaten up girls returning from a pub in Mangalore. The attack on young couples on Valentine’s Day has been a part of the activities of Bajrang Dal, a member of the Sangh Parivar. On November 10, 2020, the Goa Police registered an FIR against Shilpa Singh, an assistant professor at a law college, for comparing the mangalsutra worn by married Hindu women to a pet dog’s leash. The ABVP, the student wing of the RSS, had also complained to the college administration about Shilpa Singh.
The BJP government has awarded The Gandhi Peace Prize for 2023 to Gita Press, Gorakhpur. This publisher advocates the same values that the Sangh Parivar wants to promote. Through its books, the institute seeks to restore Manumriti’s values on caste and gender issues. Many of the publisher’s books advise Hindu women to submit to men. Some of these are Hanuman Prasad Poddar’s ‘Nari Shiksha’, Swami Ramsukhdas’s ‘How-to Live-in Grihastha?’ and Jai Dayal Goenka’s ‘Duty Education for Women’ and ‘Nari Dharma’.
Moreover, the Sangh Parivar has launched a campaign to control Hindu women and target Muslims in the name of imaginary ‘love jihad’. Representatives of these organisations are going door-to-door to send out messages to Hindu families to “keep an eye” on their girls and sisters. Whether it is 1920 or 2009, the campaign of the Hindu right is based on patriarchal values. In these, gullible Hindu women are shown to be victimized at the hands of Muslim men. It ignores that Hindu women have the right to love and marry of their own choice.”
The RSS leadership wants to promote patriarchal values in society and blames the ills of India’s Hindu society on external factors.